He stepped back and appraised the scene they had created. Anyone looking quickly would think the senseless man was repairing a net. Turning, he saw Vera smoothing the others over the tunnel entrance so it looked as if they had not been disturbed.
She looked over her shoulder and smiled. He held out his hand to her. She slipped her fingers into it and urged, “Let’s go.”
Edmund smiled as they walked with her brother along the beach. He longed to hurry her out of danger, but his experience in the war told him that three people running along the sand would catch more notice than a trio out for a stroll. With the vicar’s collar turned up against the wind and all three of them dirty and damp from their time in the tunnel, they looked as if they belonged on the shore. It might be the best disguise to let them reach Meriweather Hall alive.
* * *
Vera sat with her feet beneath her and a blanket draped over her shoulders. She was chilled to the very marrow, and she was grateful for the pot of hot chocolate that had been delivered to her room. She hoped some had been sent to her brother, too. He was with Lord Ashland and Lady Meriweather, praying for the viscount’s recovery in another bedchamber. Sneaking the viscount into Meriweather Hall, so only a few people knew he was still alive, had been simpler than she had thought it would be. Edmund had alerted Ogden and Mrs. Williams. The butler and the housekeeper had sent the rest of the servants to another wing of the house while the injured man had been hidden in an unused bedroom. Gregory had stayed out of sight, too, because they must keep his escape a secret for as long as possible.
A light outside caught her eye. Were the smugglers heading out to sea? No, she realized as she stood and let the blanket fall off her shoulders. It was a carriage light. Who was coming to Meriweather Hall at such a late hour?
She pulled on dry shoes and tied her mussed hair back with a ribbon. She slipped out of her room and hurried to where she could look over the stairs, like an impish child, to see who was arriving.
Sir Nigel stepped into the entry hall, and she edged back so he did not catch her spying on him. Why was he here? Her eyes widened when Edmund came into the entry hall as the baronet was giving his coat and hat to a footman. Edmund welcomed the baronet to Meriweather Hall with a handshake as if nothing had changed.
She wondered what game Edmund was playing when he said, “I am glad you could come right away, Sir Nigel.”
“I would be remiss as a great-uncle if I did not come here immediately on Lillian’s behalf. She will be delighted with the wonderful tidings.”
Tidings? What wonderful tidings?
As the men disappeared from view, Vera tiptoed down the stairs. The footman had taken Sir Nigel’s hat and coat away, so nobody saw her sneak after Edmund and Sir Nigel.
They entered the small parlor, and she heard the surprise in Sir Nigel’s voice when Lord Northbridge and Jonathan greeted him. Whatever he had come to talk about with Edmund, he must have assumed it would only be the two of them. She moved closer to the door.
A maid came along the corridor, carrying a tray with refreshments for the meeting.
Vera put her finger to her lips, then glanced at the small parlor.
The maid nodded and walked into the room without acknowledging Vera. Maybe the servants were more aware of what was going on than she had guessed.
Vera almost called the maid back when she saw a flash of silver on the tray. Why did the maid have the silver flask that had been dug out of the vicarage garden?
Suddenly Mrs. Uppington rushed past Vera who backed up to avoid being run over. Edmund’s aunt hurried into the room.
“Is it true, Eddie?” Mrs. Uppington asked, excitement heightening her voice. “Are you making an offer for a bride tonight?”
A bride? Vera leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. Was that why Sir Nigel was at Meriweather Hall? To arrange the details for Lillian to marry Edmund?
No, something was not right. Even if Edmund did eventually offer for Lillian, he would not be meeting with Sir Nigel about that on the very night when the baronet had given orders to kidnap her brother and kill Lord Ashland.
“Aunt Belinda,” Edmund was saying when she could hear past her thudding pulse, “I must ask your indulgence to allow us men to discuss this.”
“Men! What do you know of weddings?” There was a pause, and Vera could envision Mrs. Uppington’s face brightening with what she would deem a good idea. “There is one man who knows all about weddings. Let me get the vicar.”
Edmund’s voice grew taut. “The vicar is not available.”
“But he is! I saw him on my way down here. He was—” Mrs. Uppington screamed.
The maid did, too.
Vera pushed closer to the doorway and stared at a horrifying tableau. Sir Nigel held Mrs. Uppington by the arm and was pressing a pistol to her temple. Lord Northbridge and Jonathan stared, clearly not daring to move a muscle. The maid had swooned, dropping the tray and its contents, including the silver flask, to the floor.